There’s a word that Mike Leach is trying to conjure from somewhere deep within the bedraggled utility closet of his mind, and this word is escaping him, just as the context of this particular digression has escaped pretty much everyone else in the room. Somehow, Leach’s conversational roulette wheel has landed on the subject of Roman emperors, and how there was a guy called a something-or-other whose job it was to stand behind the emperor, reminding him — and here I shall quote Leach directly, for the sake of historical accuracy — “how dangerous it was to take your eye off the thing, or whatever.”
We are in the midst of a quarterbacks meeting at Washington State University, the school where Leach has been coaching for the past two and a half seasons. Among the attendees is his current starter, a tall and rangy fifth-year senior named Connor Halliday, who has a narrow face and a shock of red hair and, at least at the moment, wears a bemused expression. Leach sits at the head of a long wooden table on the fifth floor of the school’s newly constructed football building, two cans of chewing tobacco and two bottles of water within arm’s reach, a practice drill projecting onto a screen on the far wall. When he glances around and sees the rest of the room blinking back at him, he stops rummaging for the term and moves on. The film whirs and pauses and whirs again, until Leach stops once more and launches into an extended description of his excursion to the French Caribbean island of Guadalupe.1
“First quarterbacks meeting I ever had with Leach was an hour and a half long,” Halliday tells me later. “We watched 20 minutes of film, and then he talked about his drive up here because a semitruck had gone off the road or something. I got out of there, and I said to one of the other guys, Jeff Tuel, ‘Did you get anything about the offense?’ And Jeff said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Good, because I didn’t either.’”
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From the outside, Leach is the most conversationally fascinating and intellectually diverse college football coach who has ever graced a sideline.2 His inherent and widespread curiosities about people and places and ideas (and pirates) — and his fascinating inability to conduct any discussion in a straight line3 — are what have made him an enduring profile topic for damn near an entire generation now. But from the inside, it is another story; from the inside, the notion of playing for Leach, and particularly playing quarterback for Leach, is rife with its own inherent complexities, with the kinds of inscrutable rites of passage that almost certainly do not exist when being mentored by more conventional football coaches (or, for that matter, more conventional human beings).
Leach adores quarterbacks, and he uses them with more regularity than any coach ever has. Given the wide-open direction that football has veered in, you might argue that Leach, who helped popularize the spread offense in his previous job at Texas Tech, has done more to alter the position than any coach in history.4 But this means he is constantly judging and evaluating his quarterbacks, affording far more scrutiny to his passers than to any other position on his team. He tends to treat his quarterbacks a little bit like fiction writers treat their protagonists: He projects himself onto them,5 sets them in motion, and puts them through an emotional and physical wringer, and they emerge on the other end having fundamentally changed, most of the time for the better.
But never has that relationship been stretched to its dramatic boundaries more than in Halliday’s case.
Wily Low/AP Photo
In his three years as a quarterback under Leach, Halliday has already set the all-time record for pass attempts in a game and the all-time record for passing yards in a game, in two separate performances. If he keeps up the pace he has held through the first eight games of 2014, he could end up delivering the most prolific season, at least in terms of pure numbers, of any college quarterback in the history of the game. Halliday has completed more passes this year (348) than all but four quarterbacks in the FBS have even attempted, and he has thrown for nearly a thousand yards more than anyone else. With 3,833 passing yards and 32 touchdowns, he’s currently on pace for 5,750 yards through 12 games; the most by any other quarterback in a 12-game season was Ty Detmer’s 5,188 in 1990. If the Cougars were 6-2 instead of 2-6, Halliday would almost certainly be a contender for the Heisman Trophy, or at the very least might be regarded as one of the two best quarterbacks in his own conference.
But that’s not the way Halliday’s career has gone. For most of its existence, Washington State has been a moribund program in search of a lifeline,6 and in 2012, after spending two seasons in exile in Key West following his controversial departure from Texas Tech, Leach was hired to become that lifeline, inheriting Halliday from the Paul Wulff regime. Halliday has become a transitional player, the quarterback who will beget other quarterbacks and who will someday be remembered — presuming Leach succeeds at Washington State the way he did at Texas Tech — as the guy behind all the other guys.
All of which, I suppose, is a fancy way of saying that Halliday has spent his college career learning how to endure suffering.
“To be honest,” he says, “the timing of my college career just kind of sucks.”
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Every so often during our conversation, Halliday evokes that “to be honest” phrase, or something like it, and then the truth comes gushing out of him. He is (to be honest) one of the most candid college athletes I’ve interviewed in quite some time, and this is part of the reason it took so long for him and Leach to understand each other: They are inherently similar,7 two bracingly direct and fitfully competitive people facing up to the daunting task of building a successful football culture where one hasn’t existed for most of the past century. “Connor’s had a rough career, man,” says the Cougars’ strength coach, Jason Loscalzo. “He wasn’t taking over the reins at a place that’s had a whole lot going for it.”
Halliday’s father, Duane, once played quarterback at Boise State, and if Halliday hadn’t grown up in Spokane, a small city just west of the Idaho border and a little more than an hour north of the Washington State campus in Pullman, he admits he might have aspired to attend a school with a bit more of an established tradition. But he landed with the Cougars, and after redshirting his freshman year, he played in four games under Wulff. The last of those was a 30-27 overtime loss to Utah that established a rough template for Halliday’s career: He threw 48 passes and valiantly led the Cougars back from a 27-17 deficit to force OT, all the while playing through what he thought were cracked ribs, but was actually a lacerated liver.
That injury required an extended hospitalization and months of recovery. By the time Leach was hired, Halliday was unable to do much of anything. He sat out Leach’s first spring practice, a forgotten man, listed on the auxiliary side of the roster next to “some guys who were kicked off the team or whatever,” says Loscalzo, who keeps that original roster pinned to a bulletin board in his office. Halliday couldn’t work out, couldn’t run, and sure as hell couldn’t throw a football. His weight dropped to 160 pounds at one point, yet he slowly built himself back up by the fall, and wound up sharing reps with Tuel throughout the next season, a contentious and agonizing 3-9 campaign that pretty much everyone involved acknowledged was one of the worst things they’d ever gone through. “It felt like a decade,” Loscalzo says.
Halliday threw for 401 yards and four touchdowns in a 35-34 loss to Colorado; he threw for four second-half touchdowns in a comeback attempt against UCLA that came up short, 44-36. He suffered a concussion against Arizona State and missed the Apple Cup, a 31-28 OT win over Washington that was the only real bright spot in the Cougars’ season. He and his teammates spent the season feeling helpless and confused, in part, he thinks, because Leach had been at Texas Tech for so long that he just expected his players to pick up on the culture he demanded and spread it among themselves.
“When Leach got here, there wasn’t much telling us what to do and how we were gonna go about it,” Halliday says. “It was just like, ‘Here are the plays, go do it.’ I was talking to [former Texas Tech quarterback] Graham Harrell about this, and he said Leach got to be in one place for so long that the older guys would just teach the younger guys the way it was supposed to be, and if they didn’t fall in line, they’d tell Leach to kick them off the team. So this stage of his career, that’s where Leach’s mind was.”
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Part of the burden of being a Leach quarterback is in the inherent freedom of the offense: Every play call that Leach makes is meant to be viewed as a suggestion. If the quarterback sees something different — if he spots an opening to audible to a running play, as Halliday says he looks for on every single down, even though the Cougars running backs are averaging 62.5 yards per game combined this year — he is free to change the play call at any time. There is a moment early in each of his quarterbacks’ development when Leach will signal in a play during practice, and the defense will shift to adjust to that play, and the quarterback will run it anyway. And Leach will say, “Why did you run that play?”
And the quarterback will respond, “Because you called it.”
And Leach will say, “I let you change any play you want. So why did you call it?”
The goal, ultimately, is for the quarterback to become self-sufficient; the obvious metaphor is that the quarterback is blossoming into an adult who makes his own decisions and lives with the consequences.8 When Harrell was a sophomore, Texas Tech faced a crucial fourth down late in a game on the road against Texas A&M. Leach called “Ace Check,” which meant the Red Raiders would line up in a single-back formation, and then it was up to Harrell to audible to whatever play he wanted. “I’m thinking, Come on, man,” Harrell says. “But by my senior year, he did that half the time, and I loved it.”
And this is another of Leach’s inherent contradictions: No coach affords his players more freedom, but few coaches demand more of their players in order to earn that freedom.9 Because Halliday had to adapt to Leach on the fly — because he was thrown into a leadership role starting in place of the oft-injured Tuel before he was fully prepared — he struggled to decipher this balance. He often felt that he was being blamed for things that weren’t his fault; his offensive line wasn’t accustomed to all that pass blocking, and Halliday took a beating, spraining ankles and injuring and then reinjuring his hip and taking shots that constantly threatened to knock him out of games. He is naturally a headstrong and outspoken kid — “A cowboy,” Loscalzo says — but those first couple of years, he was weighed down by the burden of the manners he’d been taught, by the idea of respecting one’s elders, and especially by the idea of respecting one’s head football coach. If Mike Leach called the play, he thought, what makes me think I could possibly call a better one?
At times, he would react openly to everything he was feeling, all the rage and frustration and impatience, and his teammates would respond in kind. Other times, he would suffer in silence: Last year against Oregon, the Cougars fell behind 55-24 in the fourth quarter and Halliday sprained the AC joint in his shoulder, but Leach kept calling pass plays, and Halliday continued to sling it, wincing every time, throwing an NCAA record 89 times in a 62-38 loss, a performance so gratuitous that then–Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti condemned it as “low class.”10
“There are so many things you’ve got to be thinking about in this offense,” Halliday says of that game, and all the others in which he played through injuries, “that the pain kind of gets lost in your thought process.”
“Really?” I ask.
“Well,” he says. “Kind of.”
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It was the emotional anguish that nearly broke Halliday last season, during a game against Oregon State. On the sideline, Leach started yelling at him for something neither of them can remember.11 Halliday snapped. He said, Shut up already, I get it, and from there Leach’s fury worsened, and Halliday got angrier, too, and his emotions led him to force several passes, so that he threw a fourth-quarter interception, and then another, and then — “I just said, ‘Fuck it’” — a third pick. Leach pulled him from the game, and later that night, Halliday cried in front of his father for the first time since he was a kid. (“If it weren’t for my dad,” he tells me, “I’d probably be in an insane asylum.”) It was, he says now, the worst experience he’s ever had playing organized football.
The next day, Halliday went to see Leach in his office. He explained that he didn’t mind getting yelled at in the film room or on the practice field, but that getting reamed on the sideline just didn’t work for him. And Leach, Halliday tells me, said something like, Well then, play better.
Still, Halliday recovered, and the Cougars won six games, and they played in the New Mexico Bowl, where Halliday threw 58 times for 410 yards as his team lost, 48-45, to Colorado State. And this fall, while at preseason practice in nearby Lewiston, Idaho, the whole dynamic between Halliday and Leach began to click. It helped that after Harrell (who is soft-spoken and polite and might be Leach’s all-time favorite quarterback) got cut by the New York Jets, Leach hired him as an assistant, a sort of Leach whisperer who could serve as a translator for Halliday. It helped, too, that Halliday had finally come to terms with the consequences of his emotional outbursts after recognizing that the Cougars have one of the youngest teams in the country and that he would have to talk many of those players through their nerves.12 And it helped that Leach, recognizing a kindred spirit who disdained the idea of “bunting” the ball down the field, actually started to work against his inherent predilection for the vertical passing game: He’s reined in his own play calling so that he and Halliday aren’t both constantly seeking out the deep ball.
And yet even as things improved between the coach and the quarterback, the team’s suffering has endured: The Cougars lost their opener this season, 41-38, to Rutgers (Halliday threw for 532 yards and five touchdowns); they lost to Oregon, 38-31, partly due to a terrible pass-interference call (Halliday threw for 436 yards and four touchdowns); and they lost to Cal, 60-59, when their kicker missed a 19-yard field goal in the final seconds (Halliday threw for an NCAA-record 734 yards and six touchdowns).13 Taken as a whole, it has to be one of the most incredible runs of statistical prowess and ignominious defeat that any quarterback has ever endured.
“It’ll be really cool when I’m older to look at all those records,” Halliday says. “But right now it’s kind of a frustrating thing, you know. I’ve always been a guy that’s gonna play hard no matter what, but the toughest thing is to come back after a loss like that and have good body language and good leadership qualities. I feel like I’ve been through the wringer.”
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There is a tendency to dismiss Leach quarterbacks as marginal NFL prospects in part because the numbers are so abundant that they tend to cloud one’s judgment14 and in part because so many of the previous Leach quarterbacks did not fit the classic mold that the pros seek out. The phrase “system quarterback” to describe certain NFL prospects is so associated with Leach’s offense that five of his quarterbacks are listed under the Wikipedia entry, though Leach finds the term idiotic, because if you’re not running some kind of system, what the hell are you doing, exactly? “The decisions they’re making in the NFL,” Leach says, “are all over the map.”
Halliday, who is ranked as the 29th pro prospect at his position by Scouts Inc., really is a different kind of quarterback than the ones Leach has coached before: He’s 6-foot-4, and he has worked his way above 200 pounds this season, with a frame that still has room to expand. Leach tells me that Halliday has the quickest release of any quarterback he’s ever worked with. “He’s got the best arm in the country,” Leach says. “There may be a guy who throws it further, but he can make some throws other people can’t.”
Through it all, Halliday has maintained a brash defiance (“If you’re going to argue that the stats are the system, fine,” he says, “but to argue that the system makes the quarterback, I don’t agree with that”), and he is determined to finish off his career with some kind of success, whatever that might mean for a team that will now have to win out to qualify for a bowl game. And though Leach is not given to gushing or sentimentality, I think he increasingly sees in Halliday an extension of himself, and I imagine that someday, years from now, Leach will tell stories about Halliday the way he now tells stories about his former players at Tech who established him as an eccentric genius in the first place, people like Harrell and Kliff Kingsbury and Michael Crabtree and Wes Welker.
At the very least, Leach and Halliday appear to have reached a mutual understanding, so that when Leach fell into that long digression about Guadalupe and the Bermuda Triangle and Jacques Cousteau and volcanoes during the quarterbacks meeting, it was Halliday who egged him on with questions, who encouraged him to go deeper, who seemed to be enjoying this latest wholly unpredictable left turn more than anyone else in the room.
Michael Weinreb (@michaelweinreb) is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.